The Loss Within

Before stunning defeat, Wash. U.'s Robin Lahargoue blew out a knee, ending solitary sacrifice for a team that defines gender difference in athletics

Mar 13, 2002 at 4:00 am
Robin Lahargoue pushes the gym door open. She's 45 minutes early for practice, but three of her Bears teammates are already there, firing free throws.

They goof off every once in a while, but even the Globetrotter flourishes -- the passes over the shoulder from behind the back, the absent-minded one-finger dribbling -- are done with discipline. Their red practice jerseys are neatly tucked in, their socks regulation height, their movement choreographed.

They're more like Lippizaners than lumbering bruins.

Coach Nancy Fahey, the woman who's cultivated that discipline for 16 years, stands at the far end of the court, drilling a younger player. Fahey is said to be the best -- and is easily the most intense -- women's basketball coach in the country.

Off the court, she's artless, as easy to be with as a big sister, with a round face, crinkly Irish eyes and a sentimental streak about her "babies" -- 24 each year, including junior varsity).

On the court, a player could sink 40 baskets while doing handsprings on an oil slick and she'd say, "Try it one more time."

Fahey's Washington University Bears broke women's records last year with an 81-game winning streak. They've won the past four NCAA tournaments, and now, after a season undefeated, they're on the verge of a fifth.

They took a bye for the first round, so they have three days before Saturday's playoff game. They're slated to win, but they're still taking the game seriously, amassing scouting reports as complex as North Korean intelligence on their potential opponents.

No one has contemplated the possibility that they might lose.

The only loss on the coach's mind is Lahargoue's.

She's the Bears' top scorer, so the team is losing an important player -- but they can make up for it. Lahargoue can't. Injury has plucked her from the heat of center court and deposited her on the sidelines. Instant alienation. And no matter how hard she tries to stay with them, no matter how hard the rest of the team tries to keep her there, the reality stays cold. She's an outsider now. Their attention has to shift.

Fahey watches from the corner of her eye as the senior, her clear skin flushed, sits down on the first row of the bleachers. In seconds, she's surrounded by arriving teammates. "R-r-r-r-r-robbie!" calls Lendy Stuber, extending the "r" like a TV announcer, imposing a little flair.

Lahargoue grins at her friend's efforts, absorbing them into her customary quiet. She's not a girl who bothers to toss her ponytail.

Danielle Battle sits down on the bleacher next to her and begins the slow ritual fastening of her knee brace. Tiny speed demon Laura Crowley tugs impatiently at her shoelaces and offers everybody Blow Pops from a giant candy jar.

A Post-Dispatch photographer approaches, scribbling player numbers as he walks.

He stops at Lahargoue, who's wearing the baggy red team shorts and a white T-shirt. The T was meant to be nondescript, but amid all the sleek red sleeveless practice jerseys, she looks like a kid who forgot her bathing suit.

"Are you planning on wearing that the whole time?" he asks, eager to get his IDs right.

She decides she can bear no more pity. "I'd planned on it," she says.

Her voice is so soft, he can't hear the irony.

Half-an-hour before practice, nearly everybody's out on the floor. Balls hammer at the polyurethaned wood and cross in midair, pushing each other through the baskets. Lahargoue walks to the rack and starts throwing more balls into play. Then the signal -- a crescendo of clapping -- brings them all to the center of the floor for the ritual the team calls "positive circle."

Fahey started the circle as a sly bid for harmony when two team members weren't getting along. The trick then was, every player had to say something positive about the person to her right. Eventually the two antagonists traded compliments, and the tension eased.

The circle stayed, morphing into a chance for women to share news about their lives off-court. These players had lives off the court. They weren't there on athletic scholarships, and they were studying -- not the traditional sandbox sports majors but biology, political science, engineering, psychology. Fahey, who graduated with honors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, insisted they have it both ways: Academics would come first, but it would never be an excuse. They should manage their time.

Today's circle is giggly: Kirsten Klevan, 6-foot-4 with a Minnesota accent, managed to speak Spanish to a cute Mexican waiter and got free guacamole.

More stories follow. Then they sober themselves and go into their famous huddle, a closed circle with arms tight around each other. "One more game, three more practices -- that's all you're guaranteed," Fahey had warned them earlier. "You never know when you are going to be here again. And if you are, it won't be with the same team."

The huddle breaks with a guttural "BEARS!" and assistant sports-information director Chris Mitchell, who's come to shepherd TV crews, shakes his head. "They do this little circle thing, talk about what's going on in people's lives," he says, bemused. "And after that, man!"

On the court, movement explodes. They're boxing out, blocking each other from the ball, staying "in each other's shorts." The KTVI camera starts to whir.

Fahey ignores the media and walks straight to Lahargoue. In low tones, she confides strategy. Lahargoue nods as she listens, glancing out at the team.

Fahey can't stay there all day, though. She heads back onto the court, gathering her mind, cooling it to icepick focus. Earlier this afternoon, she found herself flashing over the past four years. During Lahargoue's freshman season, she splintered her backside on the bench, much as Fahey had at Wisconsin. But sophomore year, Lahargoue played every game as a reserve. Then, in the NCAA finals, their two All-Americans fouled out. Lahargoue came in off the bench and scored 10 points for the Bears.

Junior year, Lahargoue started for weeks while a senior recovered from a sprained wrist. As soon as the other player's wrist healed, Lahargoue slid back to her old position without a word.

In four years of championship basketball, Robin Lahargoue has never once stormed into Fahey's office to complain. She has never bitched or pouted. She has never questioned a decision -- not even when Fahey made her a starter, then changed her mind eight games into the season because the chemistry wasn't right. Lahargoue threw her heart into the game, upping her points-per-game average from 2.1 to the current team high, 12.9. But she never sought attention, or created drama.

Lahargoue defined team spirit.

Which is why this hurts so much.

Lahargoue remains by the ball rack, her weight on one knee, while her teammates run the wave: continuous three-on-three fast breaks up and down the court until their breath sears their chests.

She remembers her first trip to campus, how she was too chicken to stay overnight with one of the older players but still knew, somehow, that this was where she wanted to play.

It was the best decision of her life.

When she moved into her freshman dorm room, the three senior captains showed up, all towering over her 5-foot-10, to welcome her. She gulped, thanked them, kept their note on her door all year long. Soon the team had nicknamed her Robbie and indoctrinated her into their secrets: Expect to win. Let the confidence seep into your bones. Anchor it in serious hard work. Respect your opponent. If you screw up, leave it on the court.

She'd played all through high school in sunny San Anselmo, Calif., but she'd never felt this kind of bond. The men's team laughed at the Lady Bears because they were so loud, yelling, "I got ball!" and "I'm backside" (to guard someone), and using a million other bits of shorthand to communicate, constantly, where everybody was and what they were doing for each other.

In a late-January slump when the team looked as if it was spinning apart, Coach threaded 60 feet of red ribbon through their shoes and made them execute a series of maneuvers that way, reminding them how much they depended on each other. When she snipped their feet apart, each player kept a scrap of ribbon threaded through her shoe.

The guys would have laughed.

The guys played a different sport, one in which a single player could charge down the court and slam-dunk a quick-and-dirty basket. The women moved fast, but they played a horizontal game, filled with intricate maneuvers and defenses, reaching deep into the bench for support.

UCLA's legendary men's coach John Wooden called the women's game purer and fundamentally better. He made that comment specific to the Bears, complimenting them last year when they closed in on his team's record winning streak of 88 games, 1971-74.

Fahey received the compliment graciously -- but in her mind, "purer" just meant more horizontal. Women can't dunk. The choreography's different. The real differences, though, lay in the internal dynamics nobody ever noticed: the way the women related to each other, the way the team held together, the way they could compete with every ounce of strength they had and win without making the loser their enemy.

They had their own kind of game.

So the publicity washed over them, and they kept playing. Then, on Jan. 16, 2001, the vaunted 81-game streak snapped like an old twig. The Bears had crossed the country to win; they crossed the street to Fontbonne College and lost.

It was disappointing, but it was real, and Lahargoue felt as if she could breathe again. They hadn't cared about the streak; it was the media that made such a fuss about it.

They just wanted to win the NCAA tournament.

Theirs was an odd state of mind, a Zen pool ringed by fiery ambition. Fahey pushed them hard, but she never harangued or rehashed a failure. When a game was over, it was over. Adversity wasn't the other team, it was every single obstacle, internal and external, they had to overcome. And winning --

Winning they loved. They knew how it felt, and they worked hard for it, carrying its savor in their muscles. Every fall, without conscious trying, they taught the new recruits how to be on a winning team. How to carry themselves. How to ignore the usual traps, the glum dwelling on loss, the macho shoring-up of victory lust.

They did not fear losing. They simply knew they could win.

And they did win. They came back after the streak broke and won the NCAA tournament that year for the fourth time in a row.

The Bears were now known not just for talent but for depth, the way they shared minutes and plain outworked their opponents.

Lahargoue had played about three minutes in the NCAA finals even that lousy freshman year, her hands shaking as she took hold of the ball's rough surface. She'd played longer each year after. She could still feel the exhilaration of those tournaments, the way the urgency and adrenaline of now-or-never pushed them into ever-tighter unity.

Without need of ribbon, they thought and moved as one.

Of course, they had Tasha Rodgers then, an All-American now playing professional basketball in Sweden, and they had Alia Fischer, the most prolific female basketball player in Wash. U. history. Last spring, they lost not only those two but three other seniors, and Lahargoue couldn't imagine they'd play another undefeated season.

"What kind of a team are we going to be?" she and the other captains asked Fahey in September.

The coach thought a minute.

"Hardworking," she replied.

Lahargoue started her senior year with averages of 6.5 points per game and 3.6 rebounds. Between October and January, she nearly doubled both. The others improved, too. They'd never been a starstruck team, but now there were no stars; everyone shared the responsibility of winning.

And they won, and won, and won.

Lahargoue and Stuber looked at each other in amazement. Who'd have thought that without Tasha -- ? They began to dream of a fifth NCAA championship, a glorious end to their competitive basketball careers.

None of the seniors could bear to think past graduation. They couldn't imagine any substitute for the casual intimacy of those intense practice sessions, the sheer joy of the ball arcing through the air, the smooth miracle of a three-point goal.

The release of tension into something fast and strong and healthy and purposeful.

The way self-consciousness dissolved, giving way to something that mattered.

The steady building toward goal after goal, championship after championship.

Diligent by nature, Lahargoue started filling out job applications, hoping to combine basketball with her psychology major and nail a sports-marketing job, stay in the game that way. She wondered whether the mystical Bears confidence, that state of mind she'd learned to breathe into every movement, would carry into the rest of her life so that she never had to dwell on losses.

But the plans felt remote, and even her last semester of coursework felt a little abstract.

What felt real was playing.

She stayed in 36 minutes against Case Western Reserve on Jan. 13, and the Bears won easily. She waited for the scouting reports, knowing Coach would spend hours breaking down video of the other teams. She watched the younger players' faces, making sure they were getting enough sleep, staying focused, juggling classwork and romance and family issues without breakage.

At practice a few days after Case Western, she twisted to recover the ball. It was a move she'd made a thousand times before.

This time, she felt her knee snap.

Positive circle was very quiet the next day. This was the first calamity in a shockingly good season, and it had struck their top scorer.

Lahargoue plunged into the mechanical world of physical therapy -- so many minutes of heat, so many minutes of ice, stretching, strengthening.

A month later, she'd strengthened her injured leg with such a vengeance, it muscle-tested twice as strong as the healthy leg.

Meanwhile, playing seven games without her, the Bears still won. There was a little more drama -- in their second game against Case Western on Feb. 8, they trailed 39-31 at halftime. Fahey warned them not to rush back out thinking they had to score right away. They steadied themselves, remembered how it felt to win, and eased ahead, prevailing 75-62.

Two nights later, Lahargoue sneaked ahead of the technical OK to play five minutes of the Senior Night game. Her knee felt great, as normal as corn flakes for breakfast. By Feb. 15, the Brandeis game, she had the official green light to play.

Her body her own again, she scored 16 points, 12 of them in the second half as the Bears again came from behind to win.

Feb. 17 was the long-anticipated New York University game. Back in 1997, when Lahargoue was a high-school senior debating her future, the Bears had lost a game to NYU, then turned around and won 57 consecutive home games. Last year, after Fontbonne broke the 81-game streak, they had lost to NYU again, 65-64, then recovered and gone on to win the championship.

It was time to cream NYU.

Lahargoue scored 18 points and shot a perfect three-of-three from three-point range. The Bears won 78-60.

Back home, they had two whole luxurious days off before their next practice. Wednesday, they were back on the court running suicide drills, skipping backward, running at top speed in circles as intricate as a folk dance.

Ten minutes before practice ended, Lahargoue was doing a routine jab-stick-crossover, and she jumped, just a little, to shoot.

Her knee shifted apart like a doll's leg yanked from its socket.

"When there is no ACL [anterior cruciate ligament], nothing stops the tibia and femur from moving apart, shearing the cartilage," Lahargoue explains, the cool science carrying her through the tears that well up periodically. She makes no fuss or apology, just swipes at her cheeks and keeps going. "The doctor rotated the tibia, putting pressure on the cartilage, and it hurt really bad. So he was suspicious."

An MRI was scheduled for the following Tuesday, and Lahargoue spent the weekend trying to figure out how to prepare herself for bad news. It was worth it, she told Stuber, just to play those two games.

"Besides," she added, "it's character-building."

She stared down at her swollen knee and sighed:

"Enough damned character."

Lahargoue went back to her ice packs and hot pads and stretching, and the pair decided that Stuber, who's majoring in biomedical engineering, would invent an artificial ACL that could never be torn. Women are tearing ACLs four times as often as men playing the same sports. Some blame biomechanics, saying women rely more heavily on their quadriceps than on their hamstrings, land on flat feet after jumps, have more elasticity in their ligaments. Others blame body structure itself: a smaller notched opening for the ACL inside the knee, and wider hips, with a pelvic tilt designed for childbearing. Nobody likes to emphasize those differences; biology has too often been used as excuse. Women talk instead about stretching and strengthening and balance and strategic muscle recruitment.

But when the legs angle from a wider, tilted pelvis, the torque puts extra pressure on the knees.

In another tendon, Lahargoue's tear wouldn't have been as serious. But the anterior tendon didn't have the blood supply to repair itself. And when the ACL wasn't working, worse damage could occur.

Tuesday morning, Lahargoue held her breath and slid into the tunnel.

The MRI report left no room for argument. She now had a complex medial meniscus tear. In other words, the cartilage had been sheared, and all the rehab and strengthening in the world wouldn't fix it. She needed surgery.

She had played her last college-basketball game.

Almost as upset as Lahargoue, Stuber reminded her of their mid-May trip to Europe, the hikes they'd planned through Switzerland as her new motivation for rehab. She was having the surgery at home in California -- maybe she should do it right away, over spring break, so she'd have longer to heal.

No, she couldn't do that. It would mean missing a practice and maybe one of the NCAA games. She'd talked long and hard with Coach, trying to figure out what her new role was, how she could still support the team. She refused to withdraw; listening to them debate the scout reports and strategize might feel lonely and disconnected, but her loss would sting even more if she wasn't there with them.

She postponed the surgery.

Saturday, March 2, the Bears' first NCAA playoff game. Lahargoue wakes dry-eyed and clear, eager to see her team win. They're ranked No. 1, and they're playing No. 9, the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

They're tall -- they start three 6-footers -- but they only play seven people. The Bears will run them.

She feels the way she felt when they lost at Fontbonne: relieved that the fuss is over, ready to let the real events unfold.

It's cold outside, threatening to sleet, but the gym is an island of warm yellow wood and bright light. Lahargoue hugs her teammates and sits down. The buzzer shakes the air, and, in seconds, Stevens Point scores.

The perspective is maddening: On the court, she was always caught in the game's immediacy, half-aware of who was behind her and who was in front, but focused down, her eyes on the wrinkled sweaty jersey of the player she was guarding, her mind tracking her position in relation to the basket.

Now she sees all 10 players in relation to each other: who's where, who's forgetting what.

And she can't do a thing about it.

Shine and Sully are starting -- Jennifer Rudis and Meg Sullivan, who arrived together as freshmen and stayed attached at the hip. Crowley's out there too, giving her usual 200 percent.

Stevens Point scores again, and again.

Kristi Eller comes in and charges, penetrating a tangle of muscled legs. Hallie Hutchens comes in, a promising freshman with a sweet face and legs longer than a giraffe's. They play hard.

Stevens Point plays harder.

Soon people are murmuring about "an awful lot of unforced turnovers" by the Bears, saying there's "a lid on that basket." The crowd is shocked: They, like their Bears, expected to win. Had grown used to winning. "DE-FENSE!" they shout. Snow swirls outside, coming down harder, another surprise.

At halftime, the Bears are down by 11.

Lahargoue's hands, used to seeking the ball, clench tight in her lap. She's not worried, she tells herself: They've come from behind several times before. She doesn't even have that queasy heavy feeling she had at Fontbonne last year.

The Bears rally, execute several strong neat plays. The score seesaws, but they climb back, and in the last half-minute they're down by only two points.

Then by six.

And the buzzer ends it for them.

"We buried ourselves in the first half," Lahargoue says two days later, talking from a crowded car on the way to Florida. They have coconut oil, cocoa butter and aloe, and they plan to let the sun burn off the shock of the 66-60 upset.

"None of us are used to this," she says, wishing the soreness in her heart were still private and contained, one player's loneliness in place of a whole team's regrets.

"We're just trying to remember we shouldn't feel anything more than just disappointed."